Fortune granted Joseph Heller’s generation, raised during the Depression, not only service in a war whose good intentions were universally applauded but, once in uniform, a standard of living previously unknown to a boy like Heller himself, brought up on Coney Island in a modestly poor immigrant family. Thank you, Hitler and Mussolini. ‘For war there is always enough,’ Heller’s father says. ‘It’s peace that’s too expensive.’ Many young men did not return, but the survivors enjoying the GI Bill of Rights and entry into college felt no guilt about Dresden or Hiroshima — that kind of pain did not inflict itself until Vietnam 20 years later, when their kids led the rebellion. The satirical novel which made Heller famous, Catch-22, published in 1961, a tribute to absurdity as a force for sanity, was written towards the end of that age of innocence.
Catch as Catch Can is a collection of early short stories and other pieces, many of them written during the decade after Heller’s return from service with the Air Corps in Corsica. This is Heller without hilarity, the tough macho solemnity of the Depression era, a world of drug dealers, gamblers, showdowns, ex-servicemen unable to sustain a relationship with a woman (‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’). Heller cites the literary influences guiding his youthful ambition, ‘from the picturesque whimsy of William Saroyan to the hard-nosed sexist attitudes … of Hemingway and Irwin Shaw’ — to which we can add James T. Farrell, Jerome Weidman, Budd Schulberg, O’Hara and Algren. But whereas Heller’s near contemporary, Norman Mailer, turned to New York’s seedy suburbs in Barbary Shore only after he had discharged his wartime experiences in the sustained orgasmic mode of The Naked and the Dead, the war that Heller came back from seems to have fired his literary imagination only after an interval of ten years. Targeting Esquire, the Atlantic Monthly and, most yearningly, the New Yorker (which sent out rejections slips almost before the short story had been posted), Heller offered a plain, austere vernacular prose without surprises or modernist challenges to the narrative conventions of realism. Jokes are few.
By contrast, ‘Yossarian Survives’, apparently chopped by editors from the sprawling typescript of Catch-22, provokes continuous laughter as Yossarian refuses the judo and callisthenics, the baseball and basketball, by which the US army prepared its boys for the enemy. There have been few funnier writers than Heller at his best — Yossarian says he would rather die than get himself killed. Several of these later pieces in Catch as Catch Can turn up faintly modified in Heller’s long-delayed sequel to Catch-22 (originally scheduled as ‘Catch-18’, Heller recalls), which came out in 1994 under the title Closing Time, now reissued three years after Heller’s death.
Heller’s later writings of the Reagan-Bush era are dominated by a more sinister species of American absurdity, the Dr Strangelove syndrome, the red-button imminence of global destruction: ‘I didn’t know that,’ the president complains after being told that he has just launched the nation’s entire atomic arsenal. In ‘The Day Bush Left’, Bush Snr is found resigning in mid-term for no good reason other than to prove he can do it for no good reason.
The reader surrenders to the suspension of disbelief whenever Heller’s lovable rogue Yossarian surfaces, father of four, husband of several, wealthy and hypochondriac, browbeating incredulous doctors to put him through exhaustive tests in search of a few reassuringly terminal conditions — his good health is throwing him into depression.
‘“The way it looks to us now, Mr Yossarian,” said the chief medical director, “you might live forever.”’
Yossarian sees through the pretensions of American capitalism while feeling faintly ashamed that he feels no shame at all about working in advertising and on Wall Street, serving corporate clients, chasing tax shelters and bogus consultancies. Yossarian is sure he’s under surveillance — it turns out that some of the people following him are really following each other. This is (or isn’t) because of his ongoing business involvement with his old wartime colleague Milo Minderbinder, the genius Air Corps catering manager who could make a profit buying eggs for seven cents and selling them to the mess for five, and who is now peddling to a bunch of bananas in the Pentagon a non-existent Sub-Supersonic Invisible Bomber which may travel faster than light or may not. (One of the generals denies that light travels at all.) Heller’s political satire at the expense of presidents, vice-presidents and secretaries of state rarely reaches beyond the cartoon humour favoured by liberal East Coast intellectuals like Jules Feiffer when depicting LBJ and subsequent incumbents of the White House.
Much of his dialogue, his preferred form, seems to have poured out of the top of his head like ticker-tape, hugely unedited, like the German phrases in the story told by the Jew Lew, captured during the Battle of the Bulge but no sooner liberated by the Russians than horren-dously vengeful on German POWs he encounters in America. In this chapter a great deal of German is spoken by Lew, who makes vigorous grammatical mistakes, and also by Germans who rather oddly make the same mistakes as Lew (the German word for ‘name’ is persistently presented as ‘Name’). Yet Lew’s pain and confusion, his back-street confrontational style masking sexual and social insecurity, is powerfully conveyed. The elderly Heller remains at his best when exploring the lives of characters he invented out of run-down Coney Island and the airbase in Corsica — now familiar to millions of chortling readers and television viewers, not all of whom could provide an accurate example of a ‘catch-22’. Heller provides plenty: the president has resigned but his potential successor is stymied. ‘I can’t appoint a chief justice until I’m the president, and he can’t swear me in until I appoint him.’